September 5, 2009
JESSE ‘WAGES OF SIN’ VS WILL RUMJACK: A CONVERSATION
The following is an uncut, unfiltered, unwashed, unedited, uncensored conversation between Jesse Stewart of Seattle’s rockabilly Appalachian death punk gringos, ‘The Wages of Sin’, and our own Rumjack, Will Swan. First instalment as is follows:
[JESSE]: So, young Swan–what are some musical styles beyond “Celtic” and punk that have had a big impact on you? Where did you first hear them?
(WILL): Yeah, the old ‘Celtic’ vs ‘Punk’ model, ay?? Well, there’s a lot more to it than that, of course. You know, I see songs – maybe a lot of people do – in terms of the light in those songs, the actual daylight or moonlight or streetlight or bar lights. The elements of the setting. And I’ve always dug the way that Spaghetti Western music, if you will, or ‘horse opera’ sort of music, has this big rootsy sound that really resonates the sense of wide open spaces. There’s this Spanish/Mexican component to it, of course, the whole Day Of The Dead thing, the romantic violence and violent romance. I believe you’ve trod this perilous path in your own music, Jesse? If Ennio Morricone more or less galvanized it, then he was certainly taking a sensibility that was always there. Cowboy music, flamenco music. Big rock’n’roll and rockabilly bottleneck guitar sounds. Big resonant Gibsons or Gretschs, I’m not sure exactly, I’m not a string player. But that sort of thing always strikes a chord, you hear it in Reverend Horton Heat, you hear it in punk rock (like Rancid’s ‘Django’). The Pogues celebrated it so fucking gloriously in ‘Rake At The Gates Of Hell’, which is just totally soaked in sunshine and blood and dust. Coming from a country of wide open spaces, and being someone who has done road trips my whole life, as opposed to being some suburban couch potato, that’s always appealed to me. There’s an serious outlaw mythology in America and Australia that’s part of this also. And then there’s the mad religious imagery, that’s part of that gunslinging thing, too. I’d say that I felt I’d come full circle when I stood with the cathedrals of Portugal looming over me, just standing there in their shadows above the crypts full of bones, totally blitzed on Portuguese white port, and thought “fuck yeah, this is what it’s about!”. I’ve got this instrumental in my back catalogue somewhere, maybe Rumjacks will do it, called ‘Dos Gusanos’, a tequila brand I once picked up in a Portuguese bottle shop in Sydney. I just dig all that stuff. I’m not Catholic, but I dig that Spanish style of Catholic imagery, to put it mildly. You’re a gringo like me but wouldn’t you agree ….??
[JESSE]: Man, I can tell already it’s going to be hard to keep this on track, you’ve raised a half-dozen interesting ideas that I could follow on some meandering tangent or other. I’ll try to stick to one at a time… I’m struck by your idea of seeing the light in songs, it captures the way music can tickle so much more then just the ear — all the emotions it can evoke, the way sense-memory will kick in for places you’ve never been, places that might not even exist. That feeling you had at the cathedrals of Portugal, that sense of the sublime (in the original sense of the word) — it does seem to strike one in churches and graveyards, doesn’t it? Certainly those types of sounds — the ones that evoke dusty old churches and sun-baked little towns, blood and dust and horse-sweat and the hero dying with rose in one hand and a pistol in the other — are a big part of my influences. The cowboy/flamenco thing, rockabilly and classic country (which I played for years before the Wages). So what do you think is the appeal of those sounds — what ties it to the Celtic or Punk-rock influences? I’m wondering if it’s the rebel thing, the outlaw — I can see ties between the American/Australian mythology (which have some interesting parallels in and of themselves) and the Irish/Scottish ‘rebel’ mythology. There’s a common thread there celebrating the loner; the man against the world; the doomed, romantic struggle against the tyranny of that overwhelming foe.. The fight to save your way of life (which is in itself interesting, since it’s a fundamentally conservative point of view). And of course Punk is all about rebellion against the status quo (putting aside that it’s become the status quo in some ways…), all about your own way of life. Is there some common mythology uniting the vision behind the music? What do ye reckon?
(WILL): I reckon some sense of rebellion is inherent in the music, both overtly and indirectly. It gets represented in different ways; in rockabilly, I suppose there’s this time capsule around its aesthetic that preserves a sense of postwar rock’n’roll rebellion. That whole hyped menace of ‘fifties alarmist news reels, delinquents and tearaways and all that. Now, over half a century later, this is more a case of honouring something, perhaps? Part subculture, part quaint historical re-enactment, part evolving musical form. And then there’s the whole Confederate thing going on in that, which is represented internationally. We had a bloke at a Rumjacks show who had a great tattoo, ‘The South Pacific Will Rise Again’, he was a burly Islander. I thought that was great. I might be generalising but I have always seen rockabilly as essentially ‘southern’ music that took on everywhere else but carried implicit and explicit rebel imagery with it. And I think about it springing from Scots-Irish environments and sometimes wonder if Johnny from our band has rockabilly hardwired into him, given his Scots-Irish background, he’ll hate me for saying it, but to me it just rings true!
The rebellious element is represented in so many ways, from gang vocals to pure volume to a common emphasis on drink and drunkeness. I’ve looked at this last one from opposite perspectives. Drunkeness is just a lens – a way of literally looking out at the world – and music celebrating it isn’t really celebrating the drunkard so much as how he sees the world. In that sense, making music on the subject is a pretty pure take on things. Because you feel liberated when you’re drunk, songs celebrating that sensation are an inevitability. But short of smashing things up because you’re drunk, you really might as well be eating chocolate by way of a ‘rebellious’ act as getting sideways drunk. It’s just a valve for most people and that’s fair enough, although the Saturday night barroom hero is probably just some obedient citizen or henpecked wage slave.. That was never my own deal when it came to drinking, I was in it on a totally different level and lived a totally different philosophy, but I suppose there will be songs that celebrated the liberation-by-numbers that most people treat drinking as.
The romantic underdog ‘Celtic’ sensibility always comes up, of course. This simplified narrative of the REBEL Irish & Scots is such a huge phenomenon, a really, really complicated, messy, ridiculous, stupid, justified, heartbreaking, untold, true, false, tragic and bawdy story all in one, and all through the history of the British Isles and the history of the diasporas. Some bands and songwriters choose to represent it in ways that are crude and absurd if not completely offensive. Some incorporate it in expressions of profound poignancy. This concept of identity probably differs slightly throughout different parts of the Celtic diaspora. It is characterized by amnesia, assimilation, denial and romanticism but it also bears the bloodstains of truth. It’s a huge subject in itself, full of contradictions. But the fact that we are talking about it, acknowledging ‘it’, the ‘Celtic rebel indentity’, means there must be something in it, whatever that is. And for the record, just so you don’t think I’m some cold-blooded casual observer, my own family tree is, for a large part, made up of Scottish and Irish people who came to this country through the 19th Century up until the First World War, and I also have American Scots-Irish blood, and Welsh, (and I’ve got cheesey pugilistic leprechaun and Clan motto tattoos, so there!).
And perhaps the ‘rebellion’ doesn’t have to mean singing hoary old IRA songs, or Jacobite songs, maybe just the music itself, the actual MUSIC, maybe that’s an expression of survival and proliferation, if not rebellion. Because music that came on leaking boats, after Highland clearances and evictions and all, well, if that music has survived and evolved in the New Worlds, then that’s something in itself.
And there’s another big ol’ rebel motif in a lot of the music, too, and that’s the whole PIRATE thing! ‘Cause pirates are fun and pirates are cool. Now, Jesse, I’ve got to ask … does the whole nautical thing appeal, or what !?
[JESSE: ] Well I think it’s pretty clear the nautical thing appeals to me, haha (I’m listening to the Dreadnoughts as I type this…). At least on the salty surface I think it taps into the same emotional response as the dusty vistas discussed above. The (romanticized) sense of adventure, exploration, possibility – the FREEDOM of traveling to new ports of call, of doing whatever – laughable, really, since you’re trapped on a boat aren’t you, and subject to the officers’ every whim? But that’s the dream anyway, the fantasy. And the endless sea, that vast and beautiful and terrible expanse, the smell of salt and fish and seaweed, the birds wheeling overhead – it gives me the shivers.
And pirates, who doesn’t like ’em? Most kids like pirates – I know I devoured “Treasure Island” and “Kidnapped” and all that RL Stevenson stuff as a kid, plus non-fiction books about “the worst pirates in history” and the like. The N.C. Wyeth paintings in Treasure Island are still my mental image of what pirates should look like.
And of course pirates tap into that whole rebel/outlaw thing too don’t they? Masters of the sea, doing what they want, etc. – not at all like the merciless thugs they actually were for the most part (same with the sentimental vision of Old West outlaws like Jesse James, who was pretty much a confederate/segregationist terrorist). You only have to look at real pirates today to see that pirates are about as glamorous as a junkie who mugs you for a fix, but we of course prefer the noble Robin Hood vision of it.
I like the image of ‘rebel’ music expressing survival and proliferation, rather then just the romantic doomed battle – isn’t survival and proliferation the ultimate rebellion? That seems like a piece that’s often missing from ‘updated’ takes on roots music – the positive, celebratory side of it (Gogol Bordello comes to mind there). Many acts seem to have kind of a shallow understanding of the music and its history, and just grab onto a few cool images or tropes. Natural enough, it’s how we all start with, but you hope it leads to a deeper understanding at some point. It’s what leads to those ‘crude and absurd’ representations of the whole Celtic/rebel narrative you mentioned, and also to a lot of the (in the USA anyway) ‘St. Patricks’ Day’ drunken-Irish stereotypes. (And BTW I am NOT trying to present myself as some kind of expert on any of this stuff, I’m just barely scrathing the surface at this point.) It happens with country music too – lots of people love Johnny Cash singing “Folsom Prison Blues” or “Cocaine Blues” but don’t want to hear him sing “I Was There When It Happened” or any of the religious stuff. It’s all Saturday night and no Sunday morning, if you know what I mean.
It’s funny, because I find that stuff very moving, and I’m not religious at all – I generally consider myself an atheist. In fact, overt religious (particularly Christian) lyrics usually turn me off to a song or artist right quick – except of course for the dozens of exceptions, ha. I had someone listen to a bunch of Wages songs once and he said “A lot of angels and devils”, and he’s right – that imagery resonates even though I can count the number of times I’ve been to church without running out of digits. I don’t know if it’s just cultural memory, or if it’s maybe that so much religious imagery is built on mythology that goes back to the first hairy bastards sitting around a fire telling stories. But I find those symbols really powerful, even if I don’t have much use for the organization behind them. You mentioned earlier digging that ‘mad religious imagery’ – do you connect with it in a religious or spiritual way, or more as a part of the atmosphere you try to conjure when you write? What’s your take on the religious influence on roots music? It’s certainly a huge part of the catalog going back…
(Will): Well, I’m going to throw in a disclaimer here myself and just say I’m not a bonafide folklorist, but this is really interesting stuff. As far as I know, there are NO Australian folk songs that really even mention religion. And as for the Irish component of the ballad tradition – which is a major part of the whole deal – I can’t really think of too many at all. Of the cuff here, there’s a song that parodies piety (‘The Glendalough Saint’) and one that is a sort of comical take on sectarianism (‘The Old Orange Flute’). I can’t think of too many that espouse the Catholic church or anything.
That which I relate to on a spiritual level can be found in Kerouac’s ‘Dharma Bums’, or in the films of Terrence Malick (‘The Thin Red Line’). I’m not sure what it’s called. Maybe ‘eternity’, maybe something taoist, who knows. That sense informs and reflects my entire world view, it is a non-belief system, or an all-belief, if you will. Maybe on some subtle level that will come into my writing.
(BUT … I reserve the right to dig all and any religious aesthetics and characters. It’s all FOLKLORE, after all. But my themes in writing seem to be pretty much wordly, especially in relation to ideas of liberty. Liberty from the shackles of addiction, or stagnant relationships, or from jobs and ruts that have you wanting to jump out the window. Those things bring on what Bukowski called “death in life”. And you mentioned Gogol Bordello; I LOVE their whole take on freedom and liberty. I always loved that band and I listen to them more and more now, my girlfriend is Hungarian-Australian, that gypsy stuff is on high rotation).
But in folk music, I’d say you can’t talk about Appalachian and American country music without acknowledging the religious subjects and themes. They’re just so much part of it all, aren’t they? And often, because of the sheer sincerity involved, nobody can really knock that stuff. Far from it, everyone loves it. You can take the most humanist, secular, intellectual, urbane, free-thinking, atheist music fan, and nine times out of ten they’ll really dig everything from the ‘dark’ Johnny Cash spiritual songs (a perfect example, by the way, Jesse) to the ‘O Brother, Where Art Thou ?’ soundtrack. ‘Will The Circle Be Unbroken’, ‘I Saw The Light’ … all those old-timey songs. I think it must be the sincerity and ‘rawness’ of the delivery, as opposed to any desire for a religious connection.
Nick Cave has often incorporated these elements very directly. So too has Tom Waits, more often with a gospel strain are the true masters of the craft.
Perhaps those themes of redemption are universal, and perhaps they are part of the rock’n’roll mythology, the opposite of excess and ‘sin’? Taken to its extreme, this idea is explored in ‘hanging songs’, if you will. Not just the concept of the doomed outlaw, but of the human man literally at the end of his rope. To acknowledge this subject in song is not something undertaken lightly. For my own part, the idea of state-sanctioned slaughter is a disgusting barbarity that has always haunted me; it’s kept me awake at night. It still does sometimes, the same as when I was a kid. And when it comes to death row songs, NOBODY does writes it like Steve Earle. I think a lot of Australians have completely forgotten – if they even bothered thinking about it in the first place – that (white) Australia was founded in the shadow of the gallows and the cat o’nine tails.
For the record, Jesse, my favourite Wages Of Sin song is ‘The Drunkard’s Prayer’. Not the word ‘Prayer’ in there!! I think it is emblematic, it’s a terrific song that really honours its musical and thematic roots. I love it because it is purely rootsy, unrestrained, ambiguous and whimsical, and it just rocks hard. And I’m a recovered alcoholic, although I didn’t find sobriety through ‘that old time religion’.
We’ve covered a fair bit of ground here, Jesse.
[JESSE] I think you’ve summed it up pretty nicely, so I’ll just add a few odds and sods. Interesting (but maybe not surprising) that so much of the religious stuff comes out of the USA, that protestant gospel tradition combined with our legacy of slavery–all those spirituals and field songs. That actually touches on your concept of liberty as a subject matter in a more literal sense—songs about freedom, and singing as a way to find some kind of relief, some kind of escape, when your body is in shackles. Like Solomon Burke sings: When one of us is chained none of us are free.
You could argue that ‘Tyburn Jig’ takes the hanging concept lightly—certainly the lyrics there are in a bit of a contrast to the delivery. I had some friends of my brother who played that at their wedding! I don’t think they listened to the words too closely, haha. I’m with you on Steve Earle—I had the great fortune to see him on the ‘Train a Comin’ tour, just after he got out of jail. It was one of those shows—you know what I mean, yeah?–that was just magic from start to finish, easily one of the best musical experiences of my life. And he played ‘Ellis Unit One’, which hadn’t been released yet (the movie wasn’t even out). Just him and a guitar, and it was breathtaking—all the hair on my arms standing straight up, I swear to dog.
The Drunkard’s Prayer, yeah another religious metaphor, haha. It’s meant to be a bit ambiguous, it’s actually quite personal but I don’t like to be too literal with my lyrics, ya know? Ultimately though it’s not asking for sobriety (or personal salvation)–it’s looking for some hope for our species, our world, our universe…
For me I’ll have to go with ‘Paddy Goes To Babylon’ (at least this week). I’m probably mis-hearing most of the lyrics, but the chorus really resonates—it’s silver and it’s gold!–the whole thing’s got a kind of rough-hewn celebratory vibe to my ear, the perils and pleasures of Babylon. Kicking against your “death in life”–that pretty much captures it right there.
And with that I’m done rambling for tonight… Cheers mate, here’s hoping we can do it over a mug of coffee sometime!